SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS ½
No MPAA Rating, 100 mins.
2016, No MPAA Rating, 100 mins.
Ricky Gervais as Albert Finch / Eric Bana as Frank Bonneville / Vera Farmiga as Eleanor Finch / Kelly MacDonald as Claire Maddox / Benjamin Bratt as John Baker / America Ferrera as Brigida / Meghan Heffern as Virginia / Kevin Pollak as Geoffrey Mallard
Written and directed by Ricky Gervais
The new Netflix Original Film SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS is an extremely ambitious satire involving a couple of hapless and in-over-their-heads journalists that fake their own kidnapping as a cover story…when they lose their passports to travel to a foreign country to cover their civil unrest and are too cowardly to admit their mistake to their media bosses.
film was written and directed by the great Ricky Gervais, one of the most
ruthlessly hysterical on-screen comedians to have emerged in the last
decade-plus. Whether taking
the form of savagely commenting on the maddening monotony of cubicle life
in the original BBC series THE OFFICE or risk taking social/religious film
satires like the brilliant THE
INVENTION OF LYING, Gervais knows how to push just the right
buttons – and score consistent uproarious laughs at the expense of
personal humiliation - with his gutsy comedic choices.
The problem with
SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS is that it lacks Gervais’ trademark energetic
nerve. The film sets its
crosshairs on some very topical and compelling subjects (like how news is
delivered, how it’s interpreted by the masses, and just how reliably
trustworthy news sources are), but the razor sharp wit and caustic
condemnation of said subject matter here seems curiously muted and
reticent by the British filmmaker. Looking
back on THE OFFICE I was amazed at how well the series stills holds up as
a mercilessly realized piece of contempt of workplace culture.
Even later shows like EXTRAS (dealing with the behind-the-scenes
politics and shenanigans of underpaid and disrespected movie extras)
showed a willingness to not play it safe with established celebrity
culture. SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS seems to lack the usually robust
Gervais’ keen observational focus and instead awkwardly jumps
from one tone to another. The
laughs are certainly here – and when successful gags do land they
illicit hearty guffaws – but as a shrewd satirical commentary piece
SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS lacks a ravenous bite; it never really seems to go
for the jugular.
Gervais plays his
umpteenth sad sack (granted, he’s so damn effective at playing them) in
Ian Finch, a talented, but downtrodden soundman working with news radio
station Q365. When he’s not
trying to sheepishly appease the needs to his domineering wife Eleanor
(Vera Farmiga) he spends most of his days catering to the technical and
personal needs of the station’s resident alpha male reporter, Frank
Bonneville (a well cast Eric Bana, oozing smug charisma), a guerrilla
style newsman that will do just about anything to report a story,
including (in the film’s very funny opening sequence) impersonating a
police detective by using a phony toy badge.
Duplicitous methods aside, Frank gets results, which leads to his
boss (Kevin Pollak) assigning him and Ian with the assignment of a
lifetime: journey to Ecuador to cover what looks like a violent
revolutionary uprising. Being
a man that hedonistically throws all caution to the wind, Frank
immediately agrees and snatches Ian away from Eleanor to immediately
depart, much to her chagrin.
really, really bad happens just as they're about to depart: The
boneheaded Ian accidentally throws away their passports, airplane
tickets, and money, a silly mistake that would, under most circumstances,
cost them the reporting gig and their very jobs.
Now, rather than simply bracing the inevitable and confessing their
blunder to their boss, Ian and Frank concoct a ridiculous, but fiendishly
ingenious cover-up scheme: they decide to secretly set up a media base of
operations in the attic of a restaurant across the street from the radio
station and…pretend to actually be in Ecuador, using every sleight of
hand audio/radio trick in the book to plausibly sell the illusion.
The restaurant’s owners (a very funny America Ferrera and Raul
Castillo) are their dimwitted accomplices, and early on the station buys
Frank and Ian’s faux coverage. Things get out of hand when the pair – for reasons too
complicated to explain – end up faking their own kidnapping by
Ecuadorian terrorists, which miraculously gets coast-to-coast coverage and
makes their plight the water cooler topic of a nation.
Fundraisers emerge across the US, which even leaves the very
self-serving Eleanor using the newfound celebrity status of her husband to
launch her own media career.
initial premise of SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS is, as mentioned, a devilishly
clever one. Gervais
rightfully plays right into the public’s complete willingness to buy
just about any news story thrust upon them, and without questioning its
veracity in any way shape or form. As
an odd couple comedy of two doofuses wading their way through a con that
becomes impossible to maintain the longer it progresses, Gervais and Bana
are really well paired together in the film.
Gervais can play a man-child in his proverbial sleep, and his
geeky, comic book obsessed schlub in Ian is hardly a stretch for the
actor. Bana, on the other
hand, is a real performance saving grace in the film, who seems to revel
at fully evoking Frank’s deeply narcisstic high opinion of his own
dick-swinging bravado. The
supporting cast is also quite good, especially Farmiga, who juicily plays
a hilariously conveying woman that will stop at nothing to profit off of
her husband’s fake kidnapping. The
lovely Kelly MacDonald also appears as a colleague/friend to Ian, but her
affectionately bubbly demeanor and good will seems kind of squandered in a
disappointingly underwritten character.
CORRESPONDENTS doesn’t do itself any favors when, rather inexplicably,
it radically changes tones with its story, seeing Frank and Ian being
forced to actually smuggle themselves into the very country they’ve been
deceiving everyone that they’re actually in.
The shift from radical media satire into a road
trip/south-of-the-border culture clash comedy is a very peculiar one that
never seems to pay off as handsomely as Gervais thinks it does.
Then there’s the writer/director’s own somewhat misguided
interpretation of modern newsmen. In this film’s seemingly “imaginary” world, radio news
shows have the resources and capital to send their correspondents to other
countries at the drop of a hat to cover civil wars, which doesn’t seems
for that matter, why isn't a ridiculously good looking, talented, and
ambitious journalist like Frank not working as a prominent TV
journalist instead of slumming it as a radio newsman for a seemingly
mid-tier station? Also logically baffling is why Frank and
Ian would set up shop so close to their workplace.
That would seem like an obvious recipe for instant disaster, but
for the situational comedic needs of this film, Gervais sure thinks it’s
some of the charade is indeed side-splittingly funny, like the manner that
Ian inventively recreates jungle forest and gun sound effects to help sell
the illusion of Frank being in Ecuador. Also amusing is a bit where Frank tries to give acting advice
to Ian as to help coach him on “selling” his fear as a prisoner in the
bogus kidnap video they shoot (which has Ferrera posing as a masked
terrorist…in high heels). Some
of these bits made me laugh uproariously, but Gervais never fully creates
a whole package that capitalizes on all of the possibilities
of the film’s gonzo premise. Satirizing
the public’s lazy gullibility in consuming news and the whole nature of
thorny reporter ethics and how the two intersect with one another has all
the markings of a darkly amusing and brutally unflinching satire, but
Gervais’ overall approach to it here is simply too casual and ends up
falling back more on easily digestible farcical overtones.
You’d think that the typically gutsy Gervais would have a field day taking spirited jabs at American journalists stopping at nothing to shape the news for their own petty self-serving needs. Alas, SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS – despite showing great early promise – plays things too achingly safe with the material to make a lasting impression. Considering that Gervais has established himself as being unafraid to offend anyone in popular media, I was surprised by how little he went on the mocking offensive here.